Set for no apparent reason in 1994, Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness at first comes off like a calculated exercise in nostalgia, full of forced period details (Nintendo Game Boys, Reebok Pumps, references to90210) that add nothing to the story and serve only to remind viewers who were teens in 1994 that, hey, you used to think this stuff was cool.
From that inauspicious start, the film turns out to be a remarkably successful coming-of-age story, putting an entertaining spin on a familiar tale and benefiting from some strong, diverse performances. It doesn’t capture anything particularly unique to being a teenager in the ’90s, but, like Richard Linklater’s ’70s-set Dazed and Confused, it proves more that being a teenager in any era is just about the same.
Nickelodeon star Josh Peck is a long way from kid-friendly territory as the foul-mouthed Luke, a drug-dealing high-schooler who has one last carefree summer before heading off to a mediocre college. Only, his summer isn’t shaping up to be all that carefree—his parents are having money problems, and he’s hopelessly in love with Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the stepdaughter of his pothead therapist/best friend Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). Over the course of three months, Luke loses his virginity, gets his heart broken, discovers the Notorious B.I.G. and sells lots and lots of weed.
It’s not the world’s most original plot, but Levine invests it with warmth and a realistic sense of teenage life. It’s ridiculous at first to hear Jewish, Upper East Side Manhattanite Luke speak in hip-hop slang, but it quickly becomes clear that, like most teenagers, he’s just putting on a front to emulate the people he idolizes. He manages to let his guard down for Stephanie, and Thirlby is the movie’s secret weapon, bringing the same appealing emotional openness to her role that she exhibited as the only good thing about David Gordon Green’s overwrought Snow Angels.
Kingsley, who is apparently no longer capable of returning from over the top, actually benefits from hamming it up like crazy as Dr. Squires, who provides a nicely cynical counterpoint to Luke’s teenage moodiness. He also effectively illustrates the movie’s strongest, most resonant message: that no matter how old you get, or what year you live in, your teen years never really end.